Why U.S. Airmen Should be Grateful for the NTSB

By Robert Mark on April 2nd, 2015 | 3 Comments »

Dear Reader / Listeners – You now have the option to listen to The Aviation Minute podcast or just read the script of the show below. If you receive Jetwhine via e-mail, you can click here to listen as well.

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Why U.S. Airmen Should be Grateful for the NTSB

Podcast Text — Last week’s crash in the French Alps raised a number of issues, like how the young pilot accused of the tragedy managed to keep his health issues hidden from his employer, how few airlines outside the US. bring another employee into the cockpit when one pilot must leave and of course how, or if, pilots can even be allowed to fly if they’re suffering from any mental health issues. There is one item that wasn’t mentioned though, at least not directly … the differences between how aircraft accidents like these are investigated here in the US versus other parts of the world.

NTSBIn the United States, our National Transportation Safety Board has spoiled us, in a good way. The NTSB is, of course, an independent federal agency established outside the Dept. of Transportation and answering only to Congress. Since the NTSB was crated back in 1926, the agency and its predecessors have investigated some 132,000 aviation accidents.

But back to the Alps. The first comments about the Germanwings crash were released by French Prosecutors. The French BEA, their equivalent of our NTSB, was sent to the accident site, but have not been heard from.

In Europe and other parts of the world, prosecutors being first to the microphone are not all that unusual because their motives are different from ours. Here, the NTSB searched for a cause, with the hopes of preventing a similar incident. Elsewhere it doesn’t work quite the same. When a business jet crashed into a snowplow on takeoff from Moscow’s Vnukovo airport last year, the Russians quickly arrested the snowplow driver as well as the tower controllers.

Outside the US, aircraft accidents are often seen as criminal events first, hence the need to find the culprit. Prosecutors are more like cops to me. They want a bad guy and within a very short period of time following the Germanwings crash, they pinned it on the co-pilot.

But let me be clear … I’m not saying the co-pilot is not responsible for the accident. What I’m saying is that there is so much work yet to be done, so many more pieces of the crash to be investigated that I’m appalled at the direction the media coverage has taken. Read the rest of this entry »

Pilot Reincarnation: What Bird Would You Be?

By Scott Spangler on March 23rd, 2015 | 8 Comments »

From time unrecorded, humans have looked up and envied the birds above them. In time we created machines to emulate their various forms of flight. But have you ever given a moments thought to pilot reincarnation and what kind of bird you would be?

I’m not sure why I awoke with this question in mind last Sunday morning, but it was good reason for not getting out of bed until I’d pondered it. Given the omphaloskepsistic (that’s Greek for contemplation of one’s navel as an aid to meditation) nature of my question, the philosophic seagull lifted off first. Following it was the peregrine falcon, the fast and agile fighter pilot of birds; the albatross, ungainly on the ground, but king of long distance soaring; and the owl, a stealthy predator known for silent flight.

Ultimately, I decided on the hummingbird. Unlike machines, it doesn’t seem to suffer the trade-off consequences necessary for flight fast and stationary. With only a muted hum of wings beating at 40 flaps a second, give or take, they magically appear at my backyard feeder. Better than any helicopter ever could, they dart left, right, forwards, backwards, up, and down with precision that any Blue Angel would die for.

And, as I’ve just learned, their precise flight is unaffected by turbulence measured with up to a 15-percent variation in wind speed. Imagine being able to adjust the angle of incidence of your wings independently with every flap, and it it at 40 flaps a second. It would be worth growing the tail that completes the physical structure that would reincarnate me as the ultimate flying creature.

So, pilots reincarnated, what bird would you be? – Scott Spangler, Editor

Another Big United Customer Service Failure

By Robert Mark on March 19th, 2015 | 10 Comments »

United LogoI’m glad I never worked in corporate communications for United Airlines, especially since the Continental merger. The calls from outraged customers and curious media types probably never end and it seems to me that United management really doesn’t care all that much what passengers have to say.

The following incident occurred aboard United flight 1061 March 16, on the way back to Chicago from Vegas. It really made me sick … not just this passenger’s story, but how the airline dealt with it. Cue the music …United Breaks Guitars.

First a bit of context, lest you think this is only some disgruntled employee’s fictional tale. I know the writer. In fact, Sean and I have know each other more than 20 years since I’m married to his wife’s sister. I’ve known Sean to be an honest guy and a hard worker, not to mention a loyal United flyer for nearly three decades. He really wants to like United.

So imagine you’re preparing to leave Las Vegas on an airplane jammed with business people and gambler party types, some probably fresh from the casinos as he was earlier this week. He was on the way back from a trade show in fact. This is where his words tell the story. Read the rest of this entry »

Cabin Fever Compiles an Aviation To-Do List

By Scott Spangler on March 9th, 2015 | Comments Off on Cabin Fever Compiles an Aviation To-Do List

The older I get the more susceptible to hypothermia I seem to be, which is a roundabout way of saying that I’ve not been out much because many of these Wisconsin winter days have begun below zero. To combat cabin fever, I’ve been cataloging—and appreciating—all that aviation has given me over the past four decades or so. This process revealed a lot that I would still like to explore and experience before I am no longer physically or financially able to undertake such adventures, so I compiled an aviation to-do list and will start enjoying it this year, if it ever warms up.

At this stage of my aeronautical life I’m focused mainly on the people and places that made aviation what it is today, so most of the items on my list are museums that I have never before visited. High on the list are most of the sites in the National Aviation Heritage Area, from the National Museum of the United States Air Force to the Wright home to Huffman Prairie. I’ve been to Dayton, Ohio, a number of times over the previous decades, but always for another reason, and I never made time to visit these sites significant to a subject important to me. This year, I’m dedicating to them and nothing else.

I’ve not yet visited the Planes of Fame Air Museum,  for a similar reason. When I was learning to fly my instructor and I touched-and-went at the airport in Chino, California, many times. Focused on the skills I was trying to master, I ended up landing on the wrong runway because my eyes were distracted by the aircraft on display outside. I didn’t feel any better about my error even though the tower controller told me not to worry because of a wind shift he was going to make it the active runway after I landed.

Everyone I know who’s been to what is now the Mojave Air & Space Port tells me it is the place to wander around. It will be interesting to see how much of that is possible with the post-9/11 security requirements. Regardless, it’s still worth a visit because every day counts, as it does in every lifetime. We may not have had the privilege of being anywhere during its heyday, but we can still get a sense of the place by combining the words of those who were with the stage on which they acted.

There are, of course, many more historic sites on my to do list. Some are physically significant, like Blimp Hangar B at Oregon’s former NAS Tillamook, the world’s largest clear span wooden structure. The others are less well known, like Nebraska’s former McCook Army Airfield, where World War II B-17, B-24, and B-29 crews underwent final training before flying to overseas combat. Like the men who trained here, a few of the buildings they brought to life still survive (and the runways long ago gave way to farm fields). By giving witness to them, and the other sites on my to-do list, perhaps this will perpetuate their lives until the contributions they represent become the responsibility of the succeeding generation. – Scott Spangler, Editor

At United Airlines, Does Making Money Trump Safety?

By Robert Mark on March 2nd, 2015 | 10 Comments »

United Logo

At United Airlines, does making money trump safety?

A recent Aviation Week article quotes United CEO Jeff Smisek saying, “We’re going to run the airline for profit maximization …” That made me wonder a bit.

Then I noticed last week’s Wall Street Journal story in which the airline strongly chastised its pilots for cockpit safety issues the company warned could lead to an accident. United’s tone throughout the story made it appear the company had just uncovered a scorpion’s den of safety violations created by a bunch of rogue pilots who cared little about the safety of their millions of passengers.

But there’s another side to the story and calling it eye opening is a bit of an understatement.

After reading the WSJ story broken by Andy Pasztor, I began receiving a series of intriguing documents from some United pilots that again made we wonder if United is too focused on money, so much so in fact that the company might be avoiding responsibility for financially-focused policies that appear to already be undermining safety at the airline. (Note: this story was edited after it posted to correct an error in my referencing the NYTimes, when the story should have mentioned The Wall Street Journal)

While some readers might assume the information I received was simply a reaction to the company’s indictment of its pilots, it now actually seems to be the other way around. Among what I received, was a letter from a pilot member of Local 12, the Chicago council of the Air Line Pilot Association penned by their local safety officials. They were considerably more blunt about the problem at the airline. “[At United] economics trump safety,” they said. Pilots told me that their training at United, once the envy of the aviation industry, has deteriorated to become more of an industry joke. Read the rest of this entry »

How Passengers Helped Mess Up Frequent Flyer Programs

By Robert Mark on February 26th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

How Passengers Helped Mess Up Frequent Flyer Programs

Dear Reader / Listeners – You now have the option to listen to The Aviation Minute podcast or just read the script of the show below. If you receive Jetwhine via e-mail, you can click here to listen as well.

If you’re not yet a subscriber to The Aviation Minute, Click Here to sign up … it’s free.

SWA Logo


Push to play

If you missed last week’s episode of The Airplane Geeks Show, you also missed the discussion Brian Coleman our assistant producer started about frequent flyer programs. He began by mentioning the changes Southwest Airlines recently made to its Rapid Reward system. OK … bias alert — I’m a long time Southwest customer, a fact that has nothing to do with the photo I have in my office of the airline’s founder Herb Kelleher and I having a glass of Wild Turkey when I was lucky enough to meet him many years back.

Anyway, everyone seemed so concerned about Rapid Rewards. The changes mean a free flight costs more than it used to. Hmmm … A free flight costs more … now there’s a contradiction for you. My only comment though was so what? The fact that Southwest took this long to tweak their program to better reflect the price of the ticket was the real surprise to me.

Even though I have to drive crosstown to Midway to connect with Southwest, I make the trip often, but not because of the free tickets. I just like Southwest’s service. Free tickets are just gravy. And I don’t fly Business Select either. I’m in back with everybody else.TAM Final LogowithJet-01

But of course Brian couldn’t stop himself from talking about frequent flyer points. A couple of days later, he just had to share a post from our buddy Brett Snyder over at the Cranky Flier … that’s crankyflier.com BTW. Brett makes airline economics look pretty easy as you’ll see if you read his Feb. 19th story about Southwest. I don’t disagree with what Brett said at all, but the changes don’t mean much to me. So maybe I’m in a minority even when the guy who cuts my hair started asking me for advice the other day on how best to travel using frequent flier points … Uggggh! Read the rest of this entry »

The FAA Invites Comments on Drone NPRM

By Scott Spangler on February 23rd, 2015 | Comments Off on The FAA Invites Comments on Drone NPRM

Over the past quarter century I’ve read most of the Notices of Proposed Rulemaking that would affect general aviation. What separates the just released NPRM that introduces Part 107, Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, from all the others is not its subject, small unmanned aircraft systems, but a phrase: “The FAA invites comments.”

This phrase concludes almost every topic discussed in the drone NPRM. And when it doesn’t, “the FAA welcomes comments,” often with supporting documentation or data to support the commenter’s point. Altogether, they are like addicting chocolate chips in the yummy common-sense cookie dough of proposed regulations. The cynic in me asks, What is the government up to?

It should surprise no one that drones have, are, and will divide those involved in all aspects of aviation. I imagine the same was true among those in the FAA who met to hash out the specifics of this NPRM. Certainly, some were for drones and others were against integrating them in the National Airspace System.

In the end, it seems that they settled on requirements that didn’t stifle innovation, important to any infant industry, while establishing level of safety equivalent to the risk presented. And because the federal rulemaking process requires them to address the comments presented, we the people who comment will ultimately decide what the Part 107 final rule looks like. And it might not turn out like some might expect.

Read the rest of this entry »

Why is Regional Airline Pay So Bad?

By Robert Mark on February 11th, 2015 | 4 Comments »

Why is Regional Airline Pay So Bad?

Dear Reader / Listeners – You now have the option to listen to The Aviation Minute podcast or just read the text of the show below. If you receive Jetwhine via e-mail, you can click here to listen as well.

I was thinking the other day about my early days as a working flight instructor. I remember hanging out with a bunch of other instructors at Palwaukee airport grousing about how we’d live on the 5 bucks an hour we could get paid for sitting in the right seat of a Cessna 150. Then one day we heard about this guy on the airport who was willing to instruct for free … zero, zip, nada … just because he loved flying so much. He had another job so he didn’t really care about the money. I can tell you … the rest of us instructors didn’t much like this idea of a competitor undercutting our prices.

q400.jpgThere was a lesson about pilot wages that I took from this experience after one of the other guys told me not to worry about that instructor. “Hey,” he told me. “The guy may get a few students, but don’t you think they’ll be paying him what both his students AND that instructor believe he’s worth?”

Hmmmm. I never forgot that.

So on to today’s topic … the lousy pay at the regional airlines. Why does it continue, many people wonder?

First a bit of context. Most of the regional airlines provide service to more than one major airline. Because there are only a few regional feeders to deliver service to the few majors we have left in this country, the business has become pretty cut-throat. That means those regionals will do most anything to keep costs low and that means … you guessed … keep wages low.

So let’s compare Envoy, the old American Eagle carrier, with the mainline pilots at American Airlines just to see how different the groups are.

You may have heard recently the American mainline pilots – represented by the Allied Pilots Association – just signed a new contract, one that gives them an immediate 23% pay hike and 3% annual raises after that. Not bad, but then American Airlines pulled down some serious profits the past few years including a windfall off the drop in fuel prices. Read the rest of this entry »

Is GA Included in NASA’s Low-Altitude Drone Traffic Management Program?

By Scott Spangler on February 9th, 2015 | 3 Comments »

utmLate last year, NASA launched it Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Traffic Management (UTM) program to devise and test an automated system that would keep drones from bumping into each other as they performed a variety of missions. What concerns me is that nowhere in the online presentation, or in a Google search of news about the UTM program, did NASA mention anything about the users who’ve been occupying this low-altitude airspace for more than a century—aircraft occupied by humans.

Building on the lessons learned over the life of the air traffic management (ATM) of occupied aircraft, NASA’s solution “would enable safe and efficient low-altitude airspace operations by providing services such as airspace design, corridors, dynamic geo-fencing, severe weather and wind avoidance, congestion management, terrain avoidance, route planning and re-routing, separation management, sequencing and spacing, and contingency management.”

Noting that “UTM is essential to enable the accelerated development of civilian UAS applications,” by 2019 NASA hopes to develop and demonstrate an automated system that also provides data to its human managers. NASA’S website compared the result to the roads, signs and signals, and rules that guide safety vehicles that operate in two dimensions. Think that through for a moment, and consider what it might mean for general aviators.

Read the rest of this entry »

First-Person View: The Future of Flight

By Scott Spangler on January 26th, 2015 | 2 Comments »


Simply put, first-person view (FPV) is a smart phone perspective of flight. It gives the person in command of a remotely piloted aircraft a real-time look at where it is going. And it is the future of flying because it provides what people want—a view of their world from a different perspective—efficiently and economically.

Looking at the world from on high is why many of us became pilots. Until technology made drones and their FPV are possible, investing the time and effort and money to be physically present in the aircraft was our only option. No more.

There’s no denying that FPV delivers only one aspect of flight’s sensory appeal. It needs its kinesthetic, aural, and olfactory contributions to be complete, and for those who will settle for nothing less than the complete experience flight, becoming a first-person pilot will always be available to those who can’t live without it.

But one day in the not too distant future, they will not comprise the majority of the pilot population. Technology has changed how we all experience the world. If you doubt this, look around. Note how many people you see filter their lives through the screens of their smart phones.

Read the rest of this entry »